In part one of this series, we discussed the evolution of sustainable agriculture over time and examined some concrete examples of industry stakeholders who took proactive measures to set the stage for a deeper discussion on actually achieving sustainable agriculture.
These are the three main pillars that define sustainability – economical, social, and environmental:
- The environmental angle concerns the impact of agronomic practices on the environment, including greenhouse gas emission, soil and water, biodiversity, and other parameters.
- The economic angle considers the fairness of the overall economic structure and distribution across the supply chain, especially for the farmers who tend to receive the smallest piece of the pie, often below what is required to make a decent living.
- The social angle concerns the general health and safety issues for producers, namely working conditions, gender equality, and child participation in the agriculture workforce.
Each agronomic activity touches upon all these aspects. For example, when farmers use chemicals, there are implications on their cost structure (economics), physical safety (social), and water and biodiversity near the farms (environment). True sustainability can only be achieved if and when each of these three aspects is considered.
What can ag-digitization bring to the sustainability table?
As with most things in agriculture, the fundamental challenge in improving sustainability is to gain visibility into the fields – especially for commodities with a long supply chain structure. For starters, in many parts of emerging markets, there are few means to know who the farmers are and where their farms are located, let alone how they cultivate their crops. Much of the data capture in agriculture is still done manually, i.e., via the excel and paper combination. This takes significant processing time and resources, is prone to mistakes, and lacks accountability. Things get even more complicated when taking into account the myriad of stakeholders involved in bringing the harvest from farm to table. Each stakeholder has its own incentives and work methods, making collaboration difficult. Unsurprisingly, there is much to be desired in terms of data accuracy, efficiency, and transparency in the realm of sustainability.
Digitizing such processes via an ag-tech platform can address many of these problems.
- Establishing the baseline – In order to make changes and become more sustainable, the first step is to understand the current situation. Digital surveys can be used to precisely collect information – with temporal and spatial references – on farmers, their farms, agronomic practices, environmental factors such as soil and water conditions, etc. A GIS-based platform can be used to correlate additional information such as topography or land use classifications and allow these factors to interact and create a holistic picture.
- Simplifying and verifying data collection – Capturing data via a mobile application instead of paper reduces the amount of manual input required due to automatic data generation or processing. Several features can be deployed to reduce mistakes, for example mandatory fields, dynamic filtering out for irrelevant choices, etc. Algorithms can be used to benchmark across several data points and identify outliers and possible errors.
- Real-time visibility and intervention – As digital data can be processed and reviewed in real-time, it is possible for stakeholders to dispatch support in a timely manner for better outcomes. Digital tools enable direct two-way communications between farmers (or those closest to them) and experts for such purposes. For example, agronomists can review geo-referenced pest data, identify areas with a high risk of pest infestation, and issue a preventive treatment recommendation. This can help contain pest spread and limit the use of associated chemicals. In addition, sub-optimal farming practices can be detected faster, and relevant training can be arranged.
- Creating a unified database – Managing agronomic data is complex. Each crop in each geography tends to have its own working languages ranging from different names and measurement units to different protocols and workflows. This creates a challenge when converting locally collected data into a standardized, synchronized format across the supply chain, especially on an international scale. Digitization can automate such processes and create a unified database across diverse value chains for benchmarking and sharing conclusions.
- Facilitating stakeholder collaboration – It is easy to set up different access management across various users in the supply chain – geographically or functionally, inside or across different stakeholders. Each one can access and utilize the data relevant to them while maintaining privacy for the rest, building from the same unified database as a baseline for conversation.
- Traceability – We often think of traceability in the context of food safety, which is an extremely important issue – but it is also a crucial mechanism for creating incentives for sustainable practices. Compliant farmers can be rewarded with differential pricing or other means, while non-compliant farmers can receive additional support as necessary. Transparency also creates trust between farmers and stakeholders. It gives fact-based reasons to explain, for example, different grading of harvest and payments received.
- Beyond sustainability – Effective digital platforms can serve stakeholders well beyond sustainability-related matters. They can be used for general agronomic and supply chain management such as supplying farm inputs and credit to farmers, growth and yield monitoring, harvest logistics planning, and others.
Agtech is the oil in the wheels of sustainable agriculture
Digitization of various processes is a fast-growing trend across various industries, and agriculture is only starting to catch up. An ag-operations platform like Agritask can play an instrumental role in engaging various stakeholders in promoting sustainability and creating greater transparency across the supply chain. In addition, it can connect and enhance adjacent technologies that promote more efficient use of resources – for instance smart irrigation, smart spraying, and others – by enabling a holistic view of agronomic data for better decision-making and execution, all in one place. From coffee to cosmetics, palm oil to chocolate, all stakeholders can collaborate to promote better practices environmentally, socially, and economically.